ROME – ROME – Facing perceptions of corruption and mismanagement, Rome’s papally-sponsored children’s hospital Bambino Gesù appears to be stealing a page from Francis’s own playbook, putting the emphasis on serving the peripheries of the world.
During the past year, Bambino Gesù suffered through the spectacle of watching two of its former executives face a Vatican trial over charges of diverting funds meant for the care of children into rehabbing the apartment of a powerful Vatican cardinal. The scandal marred the hospital’s reputation and credibility.
Yet during the same year, Bambino Gesù emerged as a global leader in the press to offer care to children with difficult-to-treat disorders, offering to care for UK infants Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans even after both British courts and hospitals had pronounced the situations hopeless.
The hospital has worked to make sure that half of its medical directors are women, that it’s reduced energy consumption by 8.2 percent in keeping with Francis’s 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato si, and employing 700 researchers dedicated to treating rare pediatric diseases.
This “best of times, worst of times” dynamic at the Bambino Gesù was captured in its 2017 “Social Balance and the Health and Science Report,” released on Tuesday, which appears as the hospital undergoes significant change and attempts to recover from economic and financial scandals.
In July of last year, Vatican prosecutors announced indictments against two former officials of the papally-sponsored pediatric hospital for misappropriation of funds, pivoting on the refurbishment of a powerful cardinal’s apartment in 2014. The prosecution was considered an important milestone in Francis’s economic reform, applying greater transparency and accountability, and it also represented a low ebb for public perceptions of the hospital.
Today, the pope’s children’s hospital is reinventing itself and presenting a new image, strongly imprinted in Francis’s papacy of being a hospital “that reaches out,” welcoming people and caring for the environment.
“We are curious to see if our work corresponds to the expectations of the Holy See,” Enoc said. “I wish to express to Pope Francis a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for his closeness.”
The hospital registered over $377 million in income and over $366 million in costs in 2017, according to the new report, resulting in about $11 million in profits.
“These results are not intended to be in any way triumphalistic,” Enoc said, adding that she is “glad to hand over and to present a positive balance sheet.”
Bambino Gesù is the oldest pediatric hospital in the world, founded nearly 150 years ago, and a leader in providing children transplants. When Francis pays a visit to sick children on “Mercy Fridays,” this is where he often goes. When Fist Lady Melania Trump visited the Vatican, she too stopped at Bambino Gesù.
“We express satisfaction for the hospital’s growth,” said Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the pope’s top aide, at the conference.
“The pope holds Bambino Gesù close to his heart.” Parolin said the pontiff sees the facility as “a valuable instrument for the exercise of the charity, one for which he cares deeply.”
The hospital witnessed a five percent increase in the number of patients last year, and a 60 percent increase in its ambulatory services. Parolin praised the positive gains and invited the hospital to “enact all those necessary attitudes to be up to the standards of technical abilities and scientific competence.”
Keeping the books in order is a priority, Enoc said, but it’s not enough.
“The hospital, while having to make sure the accounting is in order, must not be a company, it must welcome people,” she said, comparing it to a family that includes employees, members of the clergy and religious orders, and patients.
Fifteen percent of Bambino Gesù’s clients hail from countries all over the world, according to the report, and in 2017 the hospital offered 134 free clinical operations, 55 of which were for children coming from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“Children in danger or in conflict find a cure and a home here,” Parolin said.
Through a network of non-profit organizations and hotels, Bambino Gesù offers 200 free beds for families in need of a place to stay while children are cured at the hospital. In 2017, over 3,500 families were able to use these facilities.
In line with Francis’s Year of Mercy Jubilee initiatives, the hospital catered to over 1,500 children living on the peripheries of the world, and also members of the gypsy, or Roma, minority. With the help of the Government of the Holy See, up to 89 children in emergency situations were brought in via helicopter to the Vatican and then the hospital. In addition, the hospital sponsors humanitarian projects in nine countries around the world.
According to a Syrian doctor speaking at the conference, the work of the hospital in Aleppo, Syria, “when the world turned their back on us,” was instrumental in providing medical care to children in the war-torn country.
Bambino Gesù has also been an important player when it came to the case of Charlie Gard and Alfie Evans, the British infants suffering from severe diseases who were not allowed to leave the United Kingdom in search of better cures. The pope’s hospital was among those offering the cures, and Enoc even stated that Gard could have been saved had he been sent to Rome in time.
It was Pope Francis, Enoc said, who asked that the hospital be involved in these cases. Today the institute has gone above and beyond the pope’s call, by deciding to provide care to so-called “incurable children.”
“Research requires enormous resources,” Enoc said, and the hospital has up to 700 researchers working at the facility. In 2017, 15 new diseases were discovered and Bambino Gesù treated a staggering total of 13,000 children with rare diseases.
Parolin voiced caution regarding the hospital’s future.
“There needs to be prudence and a great sense of responsibility,” he said. “It means being open to innovation, it’s very complex, and it requires great financial resources.”
The Vatican’s top diplomat stressed the importance that the hospital become “economically sustainable.”
But Nicola Zingaretti, president of the Lazio region, which has at times criticized the hospital as it traversed its complex financial crisis, said that Bambino Gesù is not alone.
“We will be there not just to comment, but also to support the achievement of these objectives,” he said, adding that the region intends to invest about $100 million for research initiatives.
Other ways in which the hospital has reflected Francis’s vision is in its inclusive hiring practices, with over half of the medical directors being women, as well as its environmental impact. The pope’s pediatric hospital has embraced Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the care of creation, Laudato Si, and reduced its energy consumption by 8.2 percent.
Enoc has still other plans, including creating a hospital near Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome and the first pediatric hospice in central Italy.
Getting the hospital’s act together, she said, has not been easy.
“I could have lived a bit more at ease after those initial difficult years,” Enoc said. “But I care for this hospital very much … it has a great history, and can’t but have a great future.”